Mystery surrounds movements of Italy's Tunisia Bardo suspect

AP News
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Posted: May 21, 2015 1:36 PM
Mystery surrounds movements of Italy's Tunisia Bardo suspect

ROME (AP) — Italy's interior minister insisted Thursday that police had pulled off an investigative coup by arresting a suspect in Tunisia's Bardo Museum massacre, despite indications that he was in Italy in the days before and after the attack.

The mystery over Abdelmajid Touil's alleged involvement in the March 18 massacre intensified amid questions over what support he could have provided the Islamic extremists from Italy, where he arrived with a boat full of rescued refugees on Feb. 17.

Touil, a 22-year-old Moroccan, was arrested on Tuesday on a Tunisian arrest warrant at the home of his mother in Gaggiano, near Milan, on accusations that he helped plan and execute the March 18 attack in Tunis. Tunisian officials have said he provided "indirect" support. The extremist Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The mayor of Trezzano sul Naviglio, Fabio Bottero, said Thursday that Touil was present at his twice-weekly Italian lessons March 16 and March 19, making it unlikely that he was in Tunis when the extremists opened fire on the Bardo, killing 22 people, most of them foreign tourists.

Bottero said he had provided Milan police with documentation from the school.

Regardless of his possible involvement, his case poses a legal dilemma for Tunisia: Italy forbids extraditing people to countries that have the death penalty on the books, noted Patrizio Gonnella, president of the Antigone Association, which advocates for legal guarantees in Italy's penal system.

Tunisia has capital punishment, though it hasn't executed anyone since 1991, according to Hands off Cain, an anti-death penalty group.

In an email, Gonnella said that Italy's Constitutional Court has ruled that Italy's prohibition stands regardless of moratoriums or promises not to execute.

Even as questions swirled about the level of Touil's alleged involvement, his arrest triggered a new round of alarm that extremists could be using migrant boats to slip into Europe to plot attacks.

NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, added his voice to the fray Thursday, saying in Brussels that while some migrants are legitimate refugees, other passengers are part of organized criminal networks "and yes, we believe there could be elements of extremists" as well.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano insisted before Parliament on Thursday that there were no terrorism-related concerns about Touil when he arrived in Sicily Feb. 17 with about 90 other migrants who had been rescued at sea.

At the time, "Touil was not considered even at the potential level as a terrorist, much less a dangerous subject for the security of our country," Alfano said.

Alfano said Touil was fingerprinted and photographed, as is routine for newly arrived migrants — action that then helped police positively identify him when they arrested him Tuesday. He was ordered expelled, but authorities lost all trace of him until his arrest.

Typically, when migrants arrive in Italy they either travel on to other destinations north, where they can ask for asylum, or they ask for it on the spot, which enables them to stay in Italy pending the outcome of their request.

If they don't request asylum, they can be ordered expelled: The expulsion decree requires them to leave the country within 15 days, though it is not enforced immediately. If they are caught by police anytime later, they can be sent home or detained until travel documents are provided by their government, said Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, which helps asylum-seekers.

It's unclear if Touil requested asylum, but Alfano said Thursday he had offered false information about his identity and was ordered expelled. As a Moroccan national, he would have had a hard time qualifying for refugee status.

After the attack, Tunisia identified him as a potential suspect, Alfano told lawmakers. He suggested that independent of Tunisia's investigations, Italian intelligence had also begun tracking Touil as a potential suspect, though he provided no details.

"Here, we're talking about the arrest of a terrorism suspect," Alfano said. "We're talking about an investigative success for the way and timeliness in which it came about. We're talking about good cooperation between various countries in the fight against terrorism."

Alfano said two pen drives, a cell phone and some personal items were taken during a search of Touil's mother's home. Italian news reports have said that Touil didn't pray at any mosque and that not even a Quran was found in the search.

Alfano said that after his arrest, Touil consented to having DNA taken, an indication that Italian authorities want to be certain that he is indeed the Touil sought by Tunisia.

The spokesman of Tunisia's Interior Ministry, Mohammed Ali Aroui, would not comment on Touil's whereabouts the day of the attack but said he was certain about his identity.

"For us, he is the one we are looking for and we continue coordinating with the Italians for his extradition," Aroui told The Associated Press on Thursday in Tunis.

Touil's mother, Fatima, meanwhile, has denied her son's involvement. In comments reported by Corriere della Sera and other newspapers, she said her son watched TV footage with her of the Bardo attack and that he had not left Gaggiano since the day he arrived.

"On March 18 he was in the apartment in Gaggiano," she said in comments reported by Corriere.

Police have said the only indication they had from the family before the arrest came in mid-April after his mother reported her son's passport missing. They haven't explained what, if any, significance the loss of the passport might have on the investigation.

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Associated Press writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this report from Tunis, Tunisia.